New York Yankees starter CC Sabathia has been tailgating at Oakland Raiders games for three decades. It started when he was a 5-year-old and his dad, CC Sabathia Sr., hit the gas pedal at 2 a.m. for the six-hour drive from Vallejo, California, to the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Back then, little CC would sleep during the trip and be raring to go by 8 a.m. with his dad, his uncles and all his buddies.
"It was like a big caravan thing," Sabathia said.
As a 20-year-old rookie with the Indians in 2001, Sabathia bought his own season tickets for the Raiders, and he has been going ever since to tailgate at what is called "CC's Barbecue." He invites teammates, such as Aaron Hicks, and opponents, such as Matt Garza, who share the common bond of the Silver and Black. They join a large group, sometimes 50 or 60, for the barbecue, which is prepared by Sabathia's cousin, Darnell Jones, a chef.
"They are Raiders. You are not a casual Raider fan. They are bred. They are. It is a lot of fun to pass that on. They love it."CC Sabathia on raising his kids as Raiders fans
The tailgaters wake up at 4 a.m. so they can be in line to enter the parking lot by around 6. Breakfast burritos are followed by games of dominoes and cards before watching the 10 a.m. PST games from around the league during lunch.
Just like their father did 30 years ago, Sabathia's kids -- CC and his wife, Amber, have two sons and two daughters -- run freely around the parking lot, throwing footballs and playing games.
"They are Raiders," Sabathia said. "You are not a casual Raider fan. They are bred. They are. It is a lot of fun to pass that on. They love it."
Sabathia does try to keep it low-key. His season tickets are located on the road side because it's a bit less crazy there, he said. A recovering alcoholic, Sabathia said there is no beer or liquor at his tailgates.
The 6-foot-6, 300-pound lefty is probably the biggest sports fan on the Yankees, but he isn't alone as a tailgater. Hicks, a potential All-Star outfielder, joins Sabathia for a game or two and also tailgates on his own, going to about five games a season. Also a Raiders fan, Hicks usually forgoes StubHub and uses the professional athlete’s go-to -- his agent -- to help locate tickets.
Last year, Hicks, who lives in Arizona, attended two games with Sabathia. He relished the beans, collard greens, chicken, ribs, burgers, dogs and sausages at CC's Barbecue -- an absolute feast.
Hicks grew up in Long Beach, California, and his older brother, Joe, was a Raiders fan. When he was a teenager, it became a family tradition to watch the games. When Hicks doesn’t go with Sabathia, he attends games with Joe, a longshoreman. They arrive as early as 8:30 a.m. to tailgate for a 1 p.m. game.
“I just like hanging out with family and just watching the game,” Hicks said. “I’m away from family for so long, it is always fun to have something that we do together. Tailgating is one of the things that we do. I can definitely relate to being a fan. I understand being a fan.”
The Yankees’ tailgating and fandom aren't limited to the Raiders or NFL football.
Chase Headley shares a season-ticket plan for the Nashville Predators. During the Stanley Cup playoffs, he was living and dying with the action on the clubhouse televisions. He got the tailgating bug while at the University of Tennessee. He used to get to games about three-and-a-half hours early and enjoy some bratwurst, steaks and burgers.
“Something easy like that,” Headley said.
Because he and his wife have young children, it's more difficult to fit tailgating into their offseason schedule, but they try to squeeze in a UT game and a Titans game. Like Sabathia and Hicks, Headley keeps it positive in the stands.
“I’m not a booer,” Headley said. “The vast majority of fans are great. But it is always interesting when I hear somebody yelling at a game, and I am like, ‘You have no idea what is going on.’ Or a quarterback makes a throw, and it looks like there is no receiver there. He may have the right read and the receiver did the wrong thing. I always find that interesting.”
Reliever Dellin Betances had the chance to play college baseball at Vanderbilt, but when his boyhood team, the Yankees, picked him and offered him a million dollars, he never went south. He hasn't tailgated yet, but it's on his bucket list.
“It's something I want to do that I’ve never done,” Betances said. “I want to do it at one of those big schools in the South. I feel like that would be the ultimate experience -- any of those Alabama games.”
As for Sabathia, he supports the Raiders' move to Las Vegas, set for 2020. He has played in the Oakland Coliseum and knows it doesn’t compare to modern stadiums.
“By the time they get there, I’ll be retired,” Sabathia said. “It will be the same. It will be fun to go there for a weekend and hang out.”